The last six months have seen Iraq become Syria-lite. Jihadists move across the porous Iraq-Syrian border with impunity, fueling the sectarian violence. Al-Jazeera reported that Iraq has suffered more than 5,000 deaths this year alone. The Kurdish north, long considered the success story of Iraq, has not been spared. On September 29, a coordinated attack of car bombs and gunfire hit Erbil, the capital of the autonomous region.
Despite this, Iraq is home to a large expat community, largely dominated by people who work in the oil industry. In Erbil, largely due to a presence of Assyrian Christians, liberal alcohol laws allow liquor to be sold in shops and even for a small bar scene—the last vestige of indulgence in a Middle East falling back in love with fundamentalism. Many of these bars act as mini-neocolonial hot spots, with oil workers, diplomats, NGO workers, security contractors, and the odd local who shows up to stare at western cleavage, all acting as odd drinking buddies.
While Erbil has got a long way to go before being considered a nightlife spot, there is one event that looms large over the drinking scene, the annual celebration of Oktoberfest in a small compound located in a dusty residential area, the site of a German restaurant called Deutscher Hof. I went down to check it out.
After my slightly too personal rubdown for guns and bombs, I was allowed inside the restaurant, where I found eight German men sitting around a plastic table. A stage had been set up for the brass band that was coming from Munich to play.
After 20 or so minutes of drinking my stein alone, I was starting to get pretty bummed about the festivities. The only other people there were a group of fratty oil workers who looked like they were part of Ben Affleck's paddle gang in Dazed and Confused.
Just as I was giving up hope, a large crowd of people (including some actual real-life females) entered the compound dressed in lederhosen and dirndls. With them, they had the band for the night.
In charge of this procession was a man surrounded by bodyguards who were yelling at the douchey oil workers to get back. Apparently, this guy is Nihad Latif Qoja, the mayor of Erbil. Much in the style of the real Oktoberfest, where the mayor of Munich taps the first keg, the mayor grabbed a mallet and set about busting open a barrel of beer.
From the looks of it, he wasn’t an expert in this field. After striking the keg once with no luck, he looked up at a guy in liederhosen for some advice.
After being encouraged to try again, he got it on the second try. The guy in lederhosen got on the microphone and screamed “O’zapft is!” and we were on our way.
At this point some people with signs got on stage to tell us about the wonderful organizations making this bacchanalia possible. These organizations ran the gambit from Pioneer Engineering, an oil and gas-services company, to Black Lake, an oilfield-services company. All of the sponsors got to hold their signs and stand there awkwardly while they gave a little one-minute speech where they praised the local government and tried to convince people that they weren’t that evil.
As we were getting our fill of beer, the band started to play and a guy who looked like an IRL grownup version of Uter from The Simpsons serenaded the crowd with his rendition of "S boarische Bier." He then told the crowd to "Prost!" when he mentioned their country of origin “USA! CANADA! TEXAS!” he shouted, as if Texas were some sort of separate entity.
Of course, my party luck being what it is, I got stuck with a bunch of old dudes who thought Oktoberfest was a good place for drinking in moderation and talking about their latest business deals.
Eager to get away from the Kenny G. fan club, I took a wander around the compound.
I met this woman, who was crowned Miss Oktoberfest and given one of those heart-shaped cookie things as a prize. Considering she was maybe one of 15 women in attendance, I am not sure this is too large of an accomplishment, but still, congrats!
Much to my delight, there was a buffet, complete with some traditional German—HOLY SHIT IS THAT PORK!?!? After a moment of hyperventilation, I quickly discovered my suspicion was correct. Considering I was at the only place in the entire country where pork was being served, I stuffed my face with swine accordingly. At this point, I was reaching a state of nirvana only brought on by Falstaffian pig glut after spending a month eating bad kebabs and worse Middle Eastern attempts at pizza.
After challenging a few friends to drinking competitions, I was thoroughly, as the German call it, betrunken—so my recollections of this point on are a little hazy.
Judging from my photos, I ended up crashing the stage at some point, doing what seems to be my interpretation of a grand pas de deux with a Bavarian flag. Considering how the partygoers seemed to not notice my behavior, with the man in the bottom left more interested in expressing his love for rock 'n' roll than taking notice of my antics on stage, this conduct might not have been as much of an aberration as I feared.
According to one witness, this was also the point in the night I was kindly informed I would not be served any more beer. I sat dejected on a bench while my friends continued drinking.
The next morning, I dragged my hungover ass to a coffee shop frequented by westerners. As I sat down, a construction crew adding a second level to the store dropped something on the ceiling, making a loud bang that reverberated around the room, sending the patrons, myself included, rushing out of their seats like roaches exposed to light.
More on Iraq:
What the Hell Was That: Happy Tenth Birthday, Operation Iraqi Freedom